At 100-years-old, German-born Jewish author and psychoanalyst (among a variety of other things) Hans Keilson, was surprised, to say the least, when he read Francine Prose’s glowing praise of two of his WWII era novels in the Sunday NYT book review. The re-released novels were “masterpieces”, she wrote, the author “a genius”.
For Keilson, who fled Nazi Germany for the Netherlands in 1936, such praise is merely icing on the bittersweet cake of his life. During the war, he had been unable to convince his parents to escape the motherland early enough. Although they were able to defect eventually to the Netherlands, they’d been too old and sickly, and had never really been able to sense the gravity of the danger they were in. Keilson’s parents were soon deported and died at Auschwitz; he still suffers with guilt to this day. In an interview in The New York Times, Keilson reacts to Prose’s words by confessing that his scientific work in the field of psychoanalysis is truly more important to him in the scope of his life than any of his novels.
The Mysterious Manuscript
At the outset of one of those novels, The Death of the Adversary, the narrator explains that the manuscript herein was given to him by a Dutch lawyer, who had, two and a half years into the war, obtained it, along with other important personal documents, from a client of his, an enigmatic German, a mystery man of sorts. The anonymous author had entreated his attorney to keep these papers in a safe place until such time as he could retrieve them.
“Read them and tell me what you think of them” says the lawyer to his friend, the narrator, who presumably is a psychiatrist of some repute. The resulting novel consists of the fictionalized memoir of this mysterious German, in which he wrestles with the relationship between himself and the one he calls his “adversary”, the enemy of his family, his people. This adversary, who is never mentioned by name, called only B throughout, obviously represents Adolph Hitler; and the memoirist’s people, the Jews – a word, incidentally never used in his writings.
The Seduction of Evil
The title word, Adversary, is an interesting and careful choice since it is commonly an appellation of Satan, and would logically connote the paradisiacal serpent along with Hitler (B in our story), as he seductively tempts his fellow Deutsch-landers, bending their will to the perpetration of genocide. This equation of Hitler to the devil would seem hackneyed from a less insightful writer, instead Keilson delves deep into the relationship between adversaries, exploring the magnetism that draws our memoirist to his innate enemy.
He learns from his parents at an early age, of the rising charismatic politician, the bane of his photographer father and therefore of him. “Who was this man, who made it necessary for God to have mercy on us, something of which my father spoke only in a trembling voice?” he writes, relating his fears as a child. Later in his youth, he is shunned by the other boys on the soccer field. His mother, learning of this, marches him back to the sandlot and beseeches the children to include her child in the game. But after they let him play, he is still abused, and attacked on the field, made to play fullback, not allowed to showcase his natural talents of speed and agility. During one particular play, he decides to fight back. Leaping for the ball with the defender upon him, he kicks with full force, his leg connecting with the other boy. After writhing for some time on the ground, his opponent jumps up to confront him with “indescribable hatred” and “boundless contempt”. This experience affects him; he decides never in the future to defend himself in the same manner he is attacked.
The Elk and The Wolves
As our memoirist grows older, he becomes hyper-aware of who and what he is and how his enemy, or the mere fact of calling this man his enemy, affects his relationships. A strong friendship goes awry, as he confesses to his friend that he has a secret enemy. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” his friend asks, adding later, “…your enemy should be more important to you than your friend.” After naming the enemy, he realizes the boy is likely involved in the Hitler Youth, yet he launches into a tirade against B, the first time he has unleashed his enmity. But it is through the subsequent discussion that he learns that he may have more in common with his adversary than he would ever dream possible. His friend exclaims that B has great ideas, that he only “needs someone an enemy or something, to achieve his aims”.
At the end of their visit, the Hitler Youth tell him a story about the Kaiser and his cousin the Tsar. After a visit from his cousin, the Tsar decided to present him with a parting gift: a herd of elk that had lived on the Steppes in Russia. The Kaiser brought the herd back to Germany, selecting a protected area in the country for the elk to roam where he felt they would feel at home.
They lived there happily for a considerable time, but soon there came reports of the herds dying out. The Kaiser, upset with this turn of events sent word to the Tsar who dispatched a master forester to investigate the matter. He examined everything that might have affected the elk in their new habitat, and at the end of a year’s investigation, he determined that nothing was done wrong relating to their feeding, climate, soil and so on. “So why have they died out?” asked the Kaiser. “They are missing one thing,” said the forester. “Wolves.” The Hitler Youth, implying that prey lose their will to survive without predators to keep them vigilant and vital, strikes a dissonant chord in our young writer, opening the dam of self doubt.
The Death Of His Adversary
By the end, our memoirist has, among other experiences: come face to face with his enemy, now Der Fuhrer, at an inauguration rally; has his convictions tested when he falls in surreptitiously with Nazi thugs; has aided in counter propaganda campaigns with a friend; and has even come to imagine the death of his adversary. He finally comes to peace with that great wraith that has thrown a pall over his entire life. What Keilson illuminates in the pages of this mere novel is more than just a study of temptation to evil, or of the struggle of good to prevail, it is of the very nature of the human spirit, its will, and dedication to purpose, along with its vulnerability. What the centenarian Keilson has produced here is lasting and profound, much like his own life.
- Title: The Death of the Adversary
- Author: Hans Keilson
- Translator: Ivo Jarosy
- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (July 20, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374139628
- ISBN-13: 978-0374139629